Sandhill Cranes at the Farm!
As our game camera popped up more pictures the other day, I was totally expecting deer, elk, coyote, maybe a moose. At first I was at least impressed with the
clarity of a shot of a mallard drake in flight. Not blurry at all. Kinda cool. It also means the migratory water fowl are back and setting up at the beaver pond again. Nice. Then the next pictures came in. I was over the moon ecstatic to see not
one, but two sandhill cranes!
It’s difficult to tell as they kept walking out of frame and were never standing right beside each other, but there is a good
chance that this is a mated pair. Antigone canadensis as per their scientific name, mate for life, though they will find a new partner should their mate die. Males and females exhibit similar colouration including grayish with brownish tones on the main body and a red cap with whitish cheek patches. The rump appears to have a bustle of feathers. They are a long legged, long necked bird like a heron, but do not fish as herons do. Instead they are opportunistic omnivores, eating anything and everything from grain, seeds, young shoots and sprouts, to insects, small amphibians, snakes and rodents. They tend to “roost” at night much like a flamingo with one leg up standing in shallow water. In Alberta, sandhill cranes migrate up from farther south before establishing nesting sites in shallow marsh or bog areas, usually with field access and forest surrounds. They will return to the same sites year after year, utilizing grasses and sedges to build mounds above water levels or sometimes on dry ground near the water body. After an ornate ceremony of leaping and calling song and dance, the female will lay between 1 and 3 eggs. These will be incubated by both parents (more so by the female) for 29-32 days. Colts, as the young birds are called, will leave the nest within one day of hatching. They will be fed by the parents initially but quickly learn to forage for themselves. Outside of breeding season, all birds forage in flocks. Colts stay with their parents for 9-10 months, achieving first flight after 65-75 days. They join their parents on the fall migration south.
The population numbers have increased to strong levels with an estimated three year average of 840,000 birds as of 2019 according to the Alberta Conservation Association. One of the largest gatherings occur on the Platte River in Nebraska, where over 250,000 sandhills group in the spring! Three sub species occur though not cut and dry due to migration habits – a smaller arctic bird, a mid sized one in the bulk of Canada, and a larger southern variant extending as far as Mexico and Cuba. Average adult size regardless of variant is 14 lbs for males and females being slightly smaller at around 10 lbs. Considering their wingspan can top out at 2 metres (6 ft) and height of mature birds is an average of 5 ft (females being a few inches shorter than males), this makes for a relatively lanky, lightweight bird. To put things in perspective an average Canada goose weighs just under 9 lbs, but they are only 2 1/2 to 3 ft tall with an average wing span of 5 ft. Most sandhill cranes occur in North America but they do exist as far west as Siberia as well.
Due to healthy population growth, a limited hunting season coinciding with other migrating waterfowl in specific WMUs has been offered again since 2020. Strategies have been put in place to reduce the likelihood of endangered whooping cranes being in these areas and accidentally getting shot, as well as monitoring how the sandhill population responds to hunting pressure over the next few years. The meat of sandhill cranes is quite different from many other birds, being nicknamed the “ribeye of the sky” due to its similarities to quality beef.
I know I will just enjoy watching and taking pictures and video of these amazing avians at the farm this year and with any luck, be able to witness a winged colt that
learns to fly! Hmmm…..sounds like Pegasus to me!